Imphal: While the ethnic cauldron is still boiling in Manipur, two boys from the state – a Meitei and a Kuki — made India proud after they scored two goals to enable India win the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) under-16 championship.
In the SAFF game, India defeated Bangladesh 2-0 in a high-octane final match at Thimphu Sunday.
Manipur government officials Monday said that of the total 23 players of the Indian squad, 16 are from strife-torn Manipur, and among them 11 are non-tribals Meitis, four tribal Kukis, and one a Meitei Pangal (Manipuri Muslim). They categorically prayed for peace to return to the state.
Hailing from Bishnupur district’s Nambol, Bharat Lairenjam netted the first goal in the 8th minute, while Levis Zangminlun, a resident of Churachandpur, fired the second goal in the 74th minute in the final match Sunday.
Setting aside the pangs of pain, sorrow, wailing voices, and cries of the victims reverberating all corners of the valley and hills of their home state Manipur, these young players played, chat, and eat together and focused only on winning the championship trophy.
An elated Bharat said that he was so happy to score the goal since it was his “goal of the championship”.
“Though players belong to different communities in the team, we mingle together happily in good team spirit,” he said Monday evening.
“My teammate, midfielder Levis, told me before the match that I should score to win the match, and his (Levis) second goal was a crucial one for India to grab the championship title. I rushed towards him and gave him a tight hug to celebrate the goal,” he added.
On the current crisis besieging Manipur, Bharat said he would like to see the state returning back to normalcy like the good old days.
The Indian striker dreams to continue playing for the country at the senior level as well by further polishing his skills.
Levis stated he felt nervous when he stepped out in the field for the final match.
“However, my confidence came to reality as I scored the second and last crucial goal,” said Levis who played for Srinidhi Deccan FC, Hyderabad.
On the ongoing conflict in Manipur, and his teammates belonging to different communities of the state, Levis asserted that “football served as their common passion, uniting and allowing them to set aside their differences”.
Levis joined the Hyderabad academy just last year, a decision that brought pride to him, but also his hometown, state, and the country. Levis’s remarkable journey and his heartfelt appeal for peace serve as a testament to the power of sports in transcending boundaries and promoting unity, even in the most challenging of circumstances.
Abbas Shingjamayum, the Meitei Pangal player from Manipur who bagged the “Most valuable player” and Top Scorer (with three goals) in the championship, said: “We didn’t talk even an iota about conflict in Manipur, and instead focused on football and team spirit.”
Lauding the glory of the Indian team, All Manipur Football Association (AMFA) General Secretary Lairikyengbam Jyotirmoy Roy said in games there is no boundary of ethnicity as manifested by the Indian squad of the SAFFU U-16 championship.